Don't forget the Poles

What ever happened to Poland?

It seems that the world has a short memory, forgetting one crisis as another comes along. So it is that El Salvador, the Falkland Islands, the nuclear peace movement have relegated the Polish events to the back pages of newspapers. Many people seem to have concluded that the military government has the upper hand, that martial law will remain indefinitely, and that all hope of democratic reform is lost. Perhaps so, but it would be a pity if the West wrote off Poland and gave up all diplomatic effort to press the regime toward a compromise with the Polish people.

We say the Polish people because it is clear that martial law has won no converts. Poles have submitted to force and returned to the factories and mines. But their hearts and minds are with Solidarity, and there is no question they want the ''suspended'' independent trade union restored. If food distribution has improved somewhat, conditions generally are dire. Prices are out of reach of most citizens' pocketbooks. Widespread joblessness threatens as factories work at low capacity. Living standards are hurting.

From the standpoint of the Jaruzelski government, martial law is a success in the sense that law and order (communist style) are restored and Solidarity has been suppressed. The Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact allies have been reassured of Poland's loyalties and commitment to the communist system. Now an agreement has been reached with Western bankers deferring repayment of some $2.4 billion owed in 1981, giving Poland a breathing space during which to try to put its economic house in order.

Yet if the regime is trying to convince the West and opposition forces within Poland that time is on its side, it may be gravely miscalculating. How much economic adversity will the Polish people, especially the young people, tolerate before coming to the conclusion that there is nothing to be gained by restraint? Even if active resistance is weak and disorganized - and Solidarity leaders and the Roman Catholic Church have cautioned against resort to violence - how can General Jaruzelski hope to lift the nation out of bankruptcy in the face of bitter popular hostility and passive resistance? Or build a party and government which can command the respect and support of the Polish people?

He and the party Central Committee are still on record as favoring an accommodation with the church and an independent, self-governing, but nonpolitical union. With the party still in shambles, and hard-line detractors struggling to gain control, it may be difficult for him to be seen dealing with an unreconstructed Solidarity leadership. But surely the release of union leader Lech Walesa from detention could begin a process of dialogue. Otherwise the nation risks an eventual social breakdown.

While contending forces in Poland play a waiting game, may the rest of the world not forget the Poles. Because of the West's economic resources, it is still in a position to try to influence events. The sanctions imposed on Poland , however limited, are having an impact. And, as it becomes clear that the Soviet Union and its allies are hard pressed to give Poland all the help it needs, a generous Western offer of aid - tied to a relaxation of martial law and progress toward a ''social contract'' - could turn the tide in constructive directions. A spelling out of such aid ought to be an ingredient of quiet diplomacy.

It is hard to suppress pangs of sorrow as one scans the Polish scene under martial law. But it would be even sadder if the West - after all the expressions of outrage - gave up all effort to support the Polish people's struggle. They need it now more than ever.

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